On the other end of the spectrum, low-income women generally do not have a choice between career and family. Many are single parents. Their chances of escaping poverty are hurt by the long-term costs of taking time off after childbirth and having little flexibility in their schedules.
Taking the next step toward workplace equality probably has to start with an acknowledgment that most parents can’t have it all — at least as long as part-time work, flexible schedules and long leaves do so much career damage.
A growing number of parents already seem to have come to this conclusion. That’s one reason for the rise in the number of mothers who have dropped out of the labor force. Lacking good part-time job options, more are choosing full-time parenting.
Last year, 40.2 percent of married women with children under 3 years old were outside the labor force, up from a low of 38.6 percent in 1998. The increase, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis, “occurred across all educational levels and, for most groups, by about the same magnitude.” By contrast, women without children at home have continued to join the work force in growing numbers.
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t one that lends itself to a sweeping policy solution.
There are steps that can help. Universal preschool programs — like the statewide one in Oklahoma — would make life easier for many working parents. Paid parental leave policies, like California’s modest version, would make a difference, too. With Australia’s recent passage of paid leave, the United States has become the only rich country without such a policy. (Giving parents here a full year of leave for each child would cost about $25 billion a year, or less than 0.2 percent of gross domestic product, Ms. Waldfogel says.)
Given fiscal realities, a more realistic immediate idea may be the recent British law giving workers the right to request a switch to a part-time or flexible schedule. Employers can still say no, but the establishment of a formal right seems to have made a difference. So far, about 90 percent of requests have been approved.
Yet policies like these are not enough. In the European countries with much more generous parental leave laws, women remain far behind men on career ladders.
The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too.
If you want a preview, you can look at the few professions in which large numbers of highly skilled women have been able to force change. Obstetrics used to be a field that required doctors to be on duty at all hours. Today, group practices allow obstetricians to share the 3 a.m. deliveries and, in the process, have a life outside of work. Optometry and veterinary medicine have their own versions of this story.
With both government and corporate budgets tight, it’s easy to be pessimistic, but I think history argues for optimism. This country doesn’t always move quickly or evenly toward equality. Yet it does tend to move in one broad direction.
For almost 200 years, the Supreme Court did not have a single woman on its bench. Sometime later this week, it is likely to have three.